This review contains spoilers. For a biography. Of a man who died in 1931. You have been warned.
I don’t have a proper name for this sort of story, perhaps a sub- or sibling genre of gonzo journalism. I’m going to content myself by calling it kin to “Sita Sings the Blues”. Miller interleaves a biography of David Starr Jordan with the events of her own life while writing said biography. Miller’s half of the story recounts a low point in her life. In that time she leans into her research on Jordan, who spent a lifetime classifying fish, trying to reconstruct the tree of life (for a broader view on this part of the story, see Naming Nature by Carol Kaesuk Yoon). His dedication to this cause despite catastrophic setbacks was a source of inspiration to her. So in her darkest days, she clung to the idea of this steadfast scientist; trying to understand how he did it. And then she learns that he was implicated in a murder, supported compulsory sterilization, and was more than a little racist. This is a strong beat narratively, but comes off a bit contrived. It only takes a few minutes of research to learn about the more controversial parts of Jordan’s life. To be working on a biography of a person in such a granular way so as to know the details of their early life without knowing the first thing about their adult self seems… implausible. Also, using a surprise reveal in a biography of someone who died in 1931 is questionable.
This ultimately results in a book that feels a little padded, a little forced. The biography of Jordan is strong, but the sudden reveal of his dark side is unnecessarily dramatic. Miller’s own tragedies are lamentable, but the weave with the rise and fall of Jordan’s life adds little. “Here is a biography of an amazing scientist who turns out not to have been such a great guy after all and by the way I was depressed when I wrote this.”